Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children

CAMBRIDGE — I spent a few hours one Sunday dropping in for a few jam-packed sessions of the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s four-day Pre-K-3rd Institute. I’ll give an overview and write about one session today and write about another in my next post.

Aligning early education with the primary grades is an idea that’s gaining an increasing number of adherents around the country. It means building a coherent continuum of learning that goes much farther than easing the transition between early education and kindergarten. It includes curriculum, assessments, family engagement, instruction and professional development.

One piece of evidence of the interest in the subject was the lecture hall at Harvard Law School, where the sessions I attended were held. It was filled with 105 people in 15 teams from 13 states. Among them was a team from Massachusetts comprised of Commissioner Sherri Killins of the Department of Early Education and Care (EEC), Sally Fuller of the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation in Springfield, Joan Kagan of Square One in Springfield, Gladys Rivera of Springfield Head Start, Donna Traynham of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and Erin Craft of EEC.

“Achievement gaps and disparities in learning exist even as children enter pre-kindergarten and these gaps continue to widen throughout early elementary school,” the announcement of the institute states. “By third grade, children’s school paths begin to diverge dramatically. There is increasing evidence that high quality instruction, attention to social and emotional development and deep and respectful family engagement can make a difference. In concert, they help to narrow achievement gaps and provide children with a solid foundation for lifelong learning. When these crucial efforts are connected and aligned to create continuity between early care and education (ECE) and elementary schools, the gains are even greater.”

The conference included sessions on literacy and math instruction, social-emotional development, and family engagement. It included sessions on federal leadership as well as examples of school systems that have adopted a Pre-K-3rd approach.

“It was the most powerful conference I’ve ever been to,” Sally Fuller said. “I had read a great deal about pre-k to three alignment, but I never understood all the components that make up alignment between the worlds of early childhood and the public schools and how the two worlds need to be aligned to meet every child’s developmental needs.”

The first session I attended included presenters from Montgomery County, MD, the nation’s 16th largest school district, which has attracted nationwide attention for its success in narrowing the achievement gap. The goal, when Supt. Jerry Weast undertook reform a decade ago, was to ensure that students graduated from high school ready to succeed in college. To do that, Weast started with pre-kindergarten. He expanded full-day kindergarten, beginning with the schools with the most low-income students. The system offered 100 hours of professional development to kindergarten teachers. It looked at what students needed to know when they finished high school and worked backward to pre-kindergarten to set the path to that endpoint.

“College-ready starts way back here in pre-k,” Janine Bacquie, Montgomery County’s director of early childhood programs and services, told the conference. “You really can’t get there without having the early childhood in place. The literacy. The numeracy. The self-regulation.”

Title I Director Felicia Lanham Tarason was an elementary school principal when Weast took over as superintendent. “When you looked at the data, our children were not leaving third grade prepared with the literacy skills they need,” she said. “If we were not up to the challenge of improving student achievement in a Title I school, he would help us transfer to another school within the system.  However, if we made the commitment to stay in our school, we had to make the commitment to improve student achievement.”

She recalled initially feeling challenged by Weast’s directive to add pre-kindergarten. “We had made pre-kindergarten the caboose on the train. Now we made it the engine,” she said. “Because we flip flopped the train, we have not one Title I school in improvement.  We were able to show the total community of Montgomery County that all children can learn.”

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